Saturday, 25 February 2012

Defying Death in La Paz

La Paz was nothing like we’d expected from a safety prospective; asides from having to avoid walking into the dangerous neighborhoods, and having the main square barricaded and guarded by at a small army platoon with large machine guns (due to the current protests), it wasn’t too bad at all.

We had the best salteñas of our trip there for breakfast, enjoyed exploring the old part of town and the cathedral, and even got a little bit freaked out when, after stepping around a cart to avoid being sideswiped by a car, we came face to face with one of the many llama fetus carcasses hanging from a shop stall, which is when we realized that we were in the Witches market.
Looking down into La Paz
There was a constant reminder about the true La Paz every time you raised your eyes above the nice architecture or stall selling 'real' llama beanies to see the slums on the rim of the ‘bowl’ that La Paz is built down into.  La Paz works differently to the rest of the world, where in most towns the aim is to have your house as high up the mountain as possible, in La Paz the aim is to live at the bottom.

And there is a clear difference between the two.  We hiked up one evening to a mirador for the sunset (hard work at this altitude!) and from up high you could clearly see the marked difference between classes, and is almost like looking at multi-colored rock strata  It was sad and strangely beautiful at the same time.

We took a day trip from La Paz to visit the Tiwanaku ruins, our tour guide was fairly useless, but the archaeology museum we visited before seeing the actual ruins was really interesting.  We thought that we’d seen all possible variations of ancient ceramics and weapons with all the museums that we visited throughout Europe, but these were really different and had character, they were almost cartoony in their decoration and very well crafted.

 After our museum tour we headed to the famous pyramid structure, which is actually just a large mound of earth as it was covered a couple of hundred years ago by a flood and hasn’t been excavated. The two more notable things were the Kalasasaya Temple, which has been completely reconstructed but the statues and gateways are the originals; and the ‘Monolitho Ponce’, which is a big statue with ancient symbols engraved all over it, except one which has a cross that the crusaders carved into the arm to ‘Christianise’ it.

The rest of the ruins were impressive with the carvings and stone structures, but most of it remains to be uncovered and in a few years if it’s excavated it will be well worth the visit. Our highlight was probably that we skipped out on the overpriced tourist lunch and found a "tiny hole in the wall place" in town and had one of  the best meals in Bolivia...  all only for a couple of bucks .. and enjoyed trying to communicate with our limited Spanish to the family who ate with us. We actually think in hindsight that we were eating in their kitchen… :-)

One of the ‘must do’s’ in La Paz is to ride down the Death Road, one of the craziest downhill bike rides in the world, which gets it’s from the number of casualties that the road has claimed.  David and Saskia were not interested in the slightest about riding such a road, whereas Sarah and Fernando were very excited about the prospect of cycling next to a shear cliff.  This worked out well, as David and Saskia planned a day of cafés and coffee while Sarah and Fernando took up the challenge of the road…

Coffee and cake pretty much describes itself, so we’ll leave Dave’s day at that and let Sarah describe hers.. because the bike ride was something else!

It was a cold start early in the morning at an altitude of 4633m and after a quick breakfast  provided out of the back of the van which consisted of cake and black petrol (bad coffee), we donned our safety ditch and were assigned a bike.  I was thankful for two things – disc brakes on my bike and a full face helmet.  After a quick intro and instructions from our guide, of which none of us understood a word, since he spoke English so fast and with a heavy accent, we decided just to followed him down the road.

The first section is on tar road that is still used by local traffic and through the mist and light rain it was quite a fast, quick descent which included overtaking multiple semi-trailers.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the great views down into the valley as the clouds were really low, so even though there was a huge drop off on the side of the road that would kill you instantly... we couldn’t see it.  It took about 30 minutes to our first snack stop and spent the 10 minutes trying to get the blood and feeling back into our fingers because we were frozen!  A chocolate bar later and we were back on the road for the next section after which came the start of the real ‘Death Road’ which is still gravel and not used so much nowadays by local traffic (which use the, newer and much safer, tarred road). 

After another incomprehensible session from our guide about how to ride on gravel; we set off.  It was a very different ride from the previous section and it was rapidly clear that one slip up here, or a bounce in wrong direction, and it was over the edge to certain death. Realising this - I rode with caution, hugging the cliff face,and enjoyed the descent. 

Actually the ride down was fairly safe.. the part that was unsafe was when the guide encouraged us re-enact the classic "superman bike" pose on the edge of the biggest drop-off.  To achieve this, we had to hold our bikes up on the rear wheel right at the edge... and out of the whole experience... getting the bike up and down was definitely more dangerous than riding down the road!

Nearly 6 hours later and a 3300 m descent we arrived at the end. We almost made it without any injuries but the New Zealander in the group crashed right at the end, heading straight over the handle bars, and split his knee cap open down to the bone.  After the shock wore off, our guide actually did a decent job of patching him up until he could get to the hospital back in La Paz. 

At the end of the ride we enjoyed a shower to wash off the mud from the river crossings we did, followed by a buffet lunch and a swim in the pool.  Unfortunately the sand flies also feasted and we were soon covered in bites and spent the rest of the afternoon applying repellent.  It took a while to drive back up to La Paz on the new road but by 7pm we were back at Fernando/Saskia’s hostel enjoying a celebratory ‘we’re still alive beer’ with Dave.

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